Mardi Gras blues with an Oak Park beat

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Stan West

Columbia College English Professor George Bailey sent me on a mission: Go research blues roots in New Orleans, he said; discuss at a conference in Baton Rouge why many African Americans don't visit Chicago-area blues clubs; and connect the dots between Africa, field shouts, spirituals, blues and jazz, then relate it to the Mardi Gras. I always do what I'm told.

George created a Blues as Literature class at Columbia College and convinced me that I should teach it instead of him. Being somewhat "blues ambivalent" — I liked the music but didn't know much about the lyrics — I approached the course with an open mind and soon learned that some African Americans loathe the art form because it's a painful reminding of past suffering.

Others relish the joy and the pain of the blues. Some salute the "protest lyrics," especially by the women artists. So after just five weeks teaching this cool course, I got invited to present on the blues at the National Association of African American Studies Conference, and attended New Orleans-born actor-musician Harry Connick Jr.'s Krewe of Orpheus Gala at the New Orleans Convention Center thanks in part to center spokesperson Lea Sinclair.

The circus-like Orpheus Gala featured hard-rocker Bret Michaels, New Orleans R&B great Allan Toussaint and pop princess Cyndi Lauper, who dressed like a black butterfly and sang New Orleans blues tunes with Toussaint tickling the piano keys.

"This city is what America is all about, "Michaels bellowed. "We take a lickin' and we not only keep on tickin', we come back and kick some ass." Connick and Michaels raised the roof with some at my table calling it "whiskey rock."

Of the several "krewes" (Mardi Gras parade groups), Harry Connick Jr's post-Katrina creation of Krewe of Orpheus features fantasy tomfoolery; connections to a historical past (one group dressed like Confederate soldiers); and the Krewe of Zulu, complete with marchers dressed like Union soldiers, a connection to the first black residents of New Orleans and how they interacted, married and co-habited with the area's indigenous population becoming what folks now call "Mardi Gras Indians." Krewe of Zulu's floats pay homage to the Indian/Black community. The detailed costumes and colorful Caribbean-tinted music of both is magnificent.

Luther Gray, a Chicago-born musician and historian, has been the most vocal proponent of Congo Square in Louis Armstrong Park, located in The Treme (New Orleans' historic 6th Ward), where slavemasters would trot out black slaves to dance as a way to stay fit before they were sold. From the Congolese and Bambalou beats heard by African drummers in what later became known as "Congo Square," emerged the rhythmic backdrop for New Orleans blues and the "second line," heard in "jazz funerals." Congo Square, prior to slavery, was a place the Houmas Indians would come from several miles away to pray since they deemed it hallowed ground.

From this sacred place, where Indian rituals, slave dances, West African rhythms and melodies, including secular spirituals, which blended into the blues (and the more improvised ones into jazz), emerged the unique New Orleans musical sound. Gray heads a band called Bambalou 2000.

On Sunday, Feb. 19, Luther took me to Snug Harbor, the city's top jazz club, to hear him, with Chief Smiley and One Nation, play their Mardi Gras Indian rhythms and melodies. At my table were seven Oak Parkers — five whites, a black, and a Latino, all members of the OPRF High School class of '05. The next day, I attended an all-day Krewe of Zulu "Lundi Gras" celebration at Woldenberg Park on the mighty Mississippi River in the French Quarter where blues ruled.

And on Fat Tuesday, amid the Mardi Gras Indian chants of "Ola Ola Yeh," I witnessed the most vibrant pageant event ever – Krewe of Zulu, which included the high-stepping Southern University Marching Band in stunning dress blues; Zulu Maids in lime green feathered headdresses; the Walking Zulu Warriors, who danced the Congolese-derived "second line" while throwing coveted coconuts to eager fans; Zulu cowboys on horseback with gold western hats; the coquettish "Baby Girls," resplendent in their pink and white hot pants, which legend claims adorned Storyville's "working girls" until the "Creole ladies" took over this fashion; and finally, the white-feathered, blackfaced, gold-crowned Zulu King and Queen, Elroy James and Dr. Tanyanika Phillips, childhood sweethearts who grew up to be lawyer and doctor, who guided this four-hour-long spectacle. I imagined George Bailey — back in Oak Park toasting us.

Mission accomplished!

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